American Expats' Influence Makes San Miguel a Refreshing Departure from Mexico's Resort Scene

Instead of swim-up bars and raucous clubs, San Miguel offered an artistic, peaceful alternative for one Main Liner’s vacation.

Illustration by Tom Labaff
The Day of the Dead was fast approaching, and we couldn’t wait. There would be torchlight parades, ancient Mayan dances, giant effigies parading through the narrow, cobblestone streets, and ghosts wandering the graveyards in San Miguel de Allende’s 16th-century town square.

There was a time when the prospect of a trip with my immediate siblings would drive me up a wall. I was the oldest and, like most firstborns, arrived with a well-defined sense of entitlement. Before I knew it, though, my little brother, Bill, was an accomplished Russian scholar and my sister, Rachel, was commanding five figures for her still-life paintings.

Now, all it takes is a word or gesture, and we feel our late parents—a pair of lovable, eccentric jazz musicians—right alongside us. Whenever we channel the past, our spouses shake their heads and sigh, “You Smiths are all the same.”

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However it’s meant, we take it as a compliment—one we now make the most of on each of our three birthdays with a jaunt somewhere distant.

It all started the previous year in Morocco. I was on assignment in North Africa when my wife, Randy, and our in-laws joined us for a weekend at the Ryad Kniza, a boutique palace in Marrakech. The ancient Red City city packs more magic per square foot than any place I know—and we’d had a marvelous time. We were sitting at the Casablanca airport, awaiting the flight home, when it hit us all at the same time: Why didn’t we do this more often? We all had pretty much the same interests—fine wines, gourmet food, hiking, art museums, local culture. Further, we would get far better deals on hotels, limos and guides with six than with two. Most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company.

By the time we were called for boarding, we’d settled on a plan. The rules were simple: With every birthday, the anniversary boy or girl would pick a destination. It could be anywhere in the world, within reason. Whoever violated this pact would meet the same punishment reserved for those who broke chain-letter chains. It went without saying that our spouses—male and female—were welcome, if not mandatory. Their status was the same as non-voting stockholders.

Now, all we had to do was settle on our first destination. I proposed that we do it the old-fashioned way: We would simply determine who was the oldest, and let him or her decide. “Oh, that’s right,” I said, as if just remembering. “That’s me.”

I already had a destination in mind for our first trip. It was a place that resonated with ancient lore—mysterious yet peaceful, with an ideal climate and lots to see and do.

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“Where is this latter-day Eden?” asked my sister’s husband, Karl.


Bill’s wife, Elise, chimed in: “Don’t you see the stories in the papers?”

But this version of Mexico was not the one of recent headlines. That became evident six months later, when a Suburban squeezed its way through a narrow cobble-stone alley, stopping in front of a blank three-story building. “Here we are, folks,” our driver announced. “The Casa Feliz.”

Or, if we preferred, the Happy House.

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Continnued on page 2 … 

Inside, the home was reminiscent of an art museum, with abstract oils, ceramics, portraits and statuary everywhere. On the first floor, rooms reached in five directions around a stone-slabbed central courtyard, with spaces defined by arches instead of walls and a fountain in one corner. A spiral staircase led upstairs to a half dozen bedrooms and baths, plus terraces billowing with roses. The next morning, we’d awake to the aroma of fresh coffee brewing. Meanwhile, the house management had one question: What would we like for breakfast? Scrambled eggs and sausage? Eggs Benedict? Huevos rancheros? 

“Tell us again how much this costs?” asked Bill.

About $63 per night—maid included.

“There’s got to be a catch,” said Karl.

There was. In other parts of the world, you see the monuments and landmarks built by ancient priests and cultures. In San Miguel, you visit homes built by more recent American expats.

The area has gained worldwide acclaim as an international art center thanks to American Stirling Dickinson. For six decades until his death in 1998, he led the renaissance that transformed tiny San Miguel into one of Latin America’s most dynamic hubs for artists and expatriates.

Today, one out of 10 San Miguel residents is an expat—most of them retirees. Others run local businesses. Whatever their occupation, the first thing you notice when entering an expat residence is the altar facing the front door. “We all have altars in our homes,” said one expat from California. “They pay homage to the Mayans who lived here 3,000 years ago. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it.”

Mort has lured us to his home with the promise of Hollywood memorabilia—mostly hats: “Remember this hat from Cool Hand Luke? How about this one from Die Hard? You’ve got to know this one from Rocky. By the way, everything you see here is for sale.”

But who would dare break up such an impressive collection? So we moved on. Come All Saints Day one of the busiest places is the town cemetery, “where the living decorate graves in marigold flowers and eat sugar skulls in honor of their ancestors,” said Rachel, reading from a guide book while we moved between the graves. “They also bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults.”

San Miguel also boasts an American cemetery, where we discovered such concessions to whimsy as a tombstone inscribed with, “The thrill is gone but the melody lingers on.”

A second contended, “At last I’ve found my niche.” And a third seemed to snipe at its occupant’s critics: “See, I told you I was sick.”

“If I didn’t know better,” said Rachel, upon seeing the last one, “I’d swear this was the Main Line section.”

Jack Smith last wrote about his hardware obsession in MLT’s January 2013 issue.

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